Fabricated 'Michael' represents another sad chapter

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2010; 9:17 PM

If you've ever dreamed of Michael Jackson singing into your answering machine, then you have a reason to pick up "Michael," the first posthumous album from a singer who's sold more than 35 million albums worldwide since his sudden death in the summer of 2009.

On the album's fourth track, "(I Like) The Way You Love Me," that angelic voice comes trickling from the speakers, small and scratchy in what appears to be a voice-mail message to himself - a quick melodic sketch and some beat-boxing for Jackson to revisit once he gets home from a busy day of shopping, or roller-coaster riding, or whatever the lost pop genius was doing in his final days.

It's a rare glimpse into Jackson's working process, one of the countless facets of his life that he carefully hid from the public eye. But when the song blooms into a glossy, full-bodied studio track, the sputtery, beat-boxed rhythm is immediately ditched for a feeble drumbeat. Someone else is at the controls.

That moment captures the debate surrounding this 10-track batch of Jackson leftovers. The singer obviously had no hand in the final product here, but many of these tunes are bland enough to make you wonder if he had any hand in it at all. Longtime producer Quincy Jones and members of the Jackson family have questioned whether some of the voices on "Michael" are actually Michael's.

Either way, it doesn't matter. The real Michael Jackson was a perfectionist who loved to burnish every note that came out of his lungs. Just as last year's "This Is It" was a concert film culled from rehearsal footage Jackson would never want us to see, "Michael" is an album of unfinished songs that Jackson would never want us to hear.

And that's a drag because we're probably going to be hearing this stuff for the rest of the decade. The Jackson estate has reportedly signed a $250 million deal that should pump posthumous albums into the marketplace for the next seven Christmases, at least.

Only in Jackson's pop kingdom can such disgusting practices fly. No one writes the missing chapters of an unfinished novel and credits the author. Why let 50 Cent rap over a mere sketch of a tune and call it a new Michael Jackson song? (It happens here with "Monster.") For anyone who has adored Jackson's brilliance - i.e. all of us - this is sickening stuff.

So much so, we should probably conserve our keystrokes, but here's a second question that "Michael" forces us to ask: When did Jackson record his last great song?

Unless you count "Scream," a serrated 1995 duet with kid sister Janet that's aged far better than expected, you'll have to moonwalk back to 1988's "Bad" album, when "Man in the Mirror" topped the charts with some of the most euphoric na-na-na's since "Hey Jude."

Then, he fades. 1991's "Dangerous" only flirted with excellence, 1995's "HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I" was sloppy and strange, and 2001's "Invincible" remains largely forgotten. It's unrealistic to expect so much from him now.

Which is what makes "Behind the Mask" this album's only pleasant surprise. Allegedly written in the "Thriller" days, its synthesizers throb to a tightly coiled beat while Jackson's voice tiptoes between a whisper and an explosion.

It's a Jackson you'll recognize, but the excitement is fleeting. On the mid-tempo fluff of "Hold My Hand," the sentimental platitudes of "Keep Your Head Up" and the paranoid ire of "Breaking News," he offers mere appproximations of the precision, agility and grace that defined his heights.

In that sense, "Michael" only amplifies the tragedy of Jackson - an artist who rose too fast to ever gain control of his life and died too suddenly to steer the direction of his legacy.

RECOMMENDED TRACK: "Behind the Mask"

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